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From Opera to Melodrama: Elton John’s Aida makes for pale romance

Adam Lubicz and Amber Thompson work at igniting sparks in Elton John's "Aida" at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

This appears to be the season for resurrecting modern musicals which have productions far more impressive than their substance. This leaves a critic with a difficult charge, at least if the production itself is done well.

Take as an example the version of Elton John’s “Aida” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. The production shows polish and style. The musical being produced, however, is still Elton John’s “Aida” – one of those shows where you go out humming the set and discussing the costumes, rather than connecting with the storyline, the characters or the songs.

The story of “Aida” first gained fame as an opera by Guiseppi Verdi. It’s towering arias and lush incidental music gained it an immediate following, and it is still seen as a pinnacle performance for great singers around the globe. The thing is, in opera you don’t much care of the plot is silly, or wildly melodramatic, or historically profoundly inaccurate. All that really matters in the end is the music, and generations have found Verdi’s music glorious.

The story follows the romance between Radames, a successful commander of the pharaoh’s army, and a captive Ethiopian slave, Aida, who turns out to be the daughter of the Ethiopian king. Radames is already engaged to Pharoah’s daughter, Amneris, who becomes suspicious of Aida and Radames. Amid war with Aida’s home country, during which her father is captured, and the wrath of Pharaoh, the love affair is as doomed as Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, in the end they are buried alive together.

Elton John and Tim Rice use the same plot, though a simplified version, and essentially the same characters. They do emphasize the racial divide, as Egyptians are portrayed as white, while the Ethiopians they are out to conquer (now called Nubians) are – as they historically were – black. Still, there is little opportunity to become engaged with characters who remain undeveloped as individuals, mostly because the script doesn’t give personality much time.

Sometimes a performance can rise above the essential superficiality. Interestingly, at Candlelight Pavilion, Lindsay Martin’s Amneris does just that, finding the princess’ internal struggle between love and honor, and becoming the most sympathetic of the participants. Amber Thompson provides the richest and most interesting voice, singing with passion and intensity enough to embody her own struggle between nation and heart.

Adam Lubicz strides about with passion as Radames, but the emotional connection between him and Thompson’s Aida remains somewhat unconvincing. John LaLonde would be twirling his mustaches if he had them as Radames’ manipulative father, Zoser. Wesley Mosteller seems likable as Radames’ Nubian slave, whose main job is to give Aida’s position perspective. Monica Quinn Gonzalez, as another of the slaves, becomes important as her character sacrifices herself for Aida while the Nubians work to save their king.

Director /choreographer Paul David Bryant has given this show a continuity and energy which bring the story along. The entire cast has a sense of ensemble, and works as a unit to make the show as dramatic as possible. If I would change one thing, it would be the several moments where Radames takes off his heavy coat, making him instantly smaller and a far less romantic figure.

The sets and props, provided by Riverside Community College, are fascinatingly simple and evocative. The costumes from the Maine State Musical Theater seem rather eclectic – sometimes confusingly so, combining light-weight clothing evocative of Egyptian traditions with heavy robes, tunics and boots more suited to The Lord of the Rings.

In short, if you are fond of Elton John, or wish to see this musical – which admittedly won a Tony for its score, but in a year when most musicals were dance concerts performed to canned recordings of pop tunes – this will be an excellent way to do so. Still, it remains a show which provides spectacle without the essential empathy which makes an interesting musical into an emotional powerhouse.

What: Elton John’s “Aida” When: Through June 3, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors open for lunch and a matinee at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $48 – $68, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

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